by Edward Bell
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following speech is a live recording delivered by Edward Bell at the 1999 Washington Student Seminar.
What is life? Does it simply mean having breath in your body and a strong heartbeat? Well, maybe, but to most of us it means a great deal more. It means learning, experiencing, loving, and finding a purpose in our existence. We all have life, but we don't all have the same opportunity truly to live.
I grew up as a pretty normal sighted child. My family lived in a poor section of Albuquerque, where my father worked in construction and my mother was a homemaker. My siblings and I did not have many material possessions, but we had a strong, loving, happy family. Life was pretty good until I reached age fifteen. In 1990 my father passed away after a long bout with cancer. Within a year my family was evicted from the low-income housing which had been our home. After some disagreements with my mother, I moved in with my brother, and our family kind of split apart. It was about this time that life started to seem discouraging and unpleasant. I began going through the motions of school and work but not really enjoying life. I started skipping school, partying, and generally going down the wrong path.
Then, in 1992, I was shot in a drive-by shooting, which resulted in total blindness. Knowing nothing about blindness except the negative stereotypes and misconceptions, I was in total despair. After leaving the hospital, I returned to my brother's house and waited to die. It was at this time that I stopped living altogether and simply continued existing. In 1993 my sister and nephew were in a horrible car accident, and I also lost several friends to street violence.
Not knowing what else to do, my mother began researching available services that might help me adjust to blindness. Fortunately she found the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. I attended the training center, where I spent seven months learning cane travel, Braille, and the necessary skills of blindness. More important, however, I found the National Federation of the Blind. Please understand me: I didn't run to this organization with open arms. I was skeptical and did everything I could to avoid becoming involved. I had never belonged to other organizations and saw no reason to begin with a group of blind people. Nevertheless, I attended my first National Convention in 1993, but the importance of the National Federation of the Blind did not strike me until I began attending college and obtained my first job.
I had no desire to return to college, but constant support and encouragement from friends in the National Federation of the Blind finally convinced me to give it a try. Beginning college forced me to start facing life again and finding purpose for my existence. Working for the Louisiana Center for the Blind in 1994 offered me my first opportunity to give back some of the skills, knowledge, and confidence I had gained. My early successes made clear to me that none of it would have been possible without the National Federation of the Blind.
Let me speak for a moment about vision. When we think of vision, most of us think of eyesight. What I am thinking about requires a much broader definition. I am talking about a vision of life, specifically, that which the NFB has helped me to regain. When I was a child, I had dreams of joining the military, raising a family, and acquiring money and status. In the early 1990's, however, I lost this vision and focused only on my blindness and limitations. Not only had I lost my eyesight, but I had abandoned my dreams and hopes for the future.
Slowly but surely I have regained my vision. My eyes are as blind today as they were six years ago, but I now have the vision that I had truly missed. This vision began returning only after I became active in the NFB--attending state and National Conventions, making new friends, succeeding in college, and gaining stability in my personal life. These have been the tools that have assisted me in rebuilding my hopes and dreams for the future. Because we are blind, we often spend too much time focusing on eyesight and convincing others that we are capable of normality. But by investing my time in the efforts of the NFB and focusing on my own plans, I have begun to regain the vision I was missing. Like many blind people I thought that only eyesight could improve my life. I now know that persistence and a wise investment in the National Federation of the Blind can give you more vision than any doctor or rehabilitation plan.
So what is a Federationist, and why am I one? I believe that a Federationist is someone who has devoted his or her life to the organization. I do not mean devotion simply because someone else said it was a good idea but because of witnessing firsthand its importance. In fact, many Federationists will tell you that they cannot conceive what their lives would have been like without the NFB, and I believe them.
Those of us who call ourselves Federationists with pride have found a niche in this organization and a common purpose that we believe is worth working toward. There is no secret initiation, no key to becoming a Federationist. Most of us have the capacity to be Federationists even if we don't know it yet. Everyone who seeks happiness, success, and a place where we fit and know we belong can find a home in the NFB.
Why am I a Federationist? Words are inadequate. I can say that the NFB has truly given me my life back and an even better one than I thought existed. You may be thinking, "But you're still blind. How can you think such a thing?" I can say it because I now have something much more important than eyesight; I have insight into my own potential and an accurate vision of the life that I am already acquiring. This realization has motivated me to dedicate my life to the work of the National Federation of the Blind and makes me proud to call myself a Federationist.